The Moment CSKA Didn’t Lose

It was happening again. From a 20-point halftime lead to a two point hole, this wouldn’t have been just ‘another CSKA collapse’. It would have been a mental and physical surrender. Viktor Khryapa, one of the unfortunate icons of the Red Army club’s perennial failure in this competition, rose in a crowd of bodies to tip in a desperate De Colo three pointer after Teodosic nearly spilled the ball, and the small red corner of the arena exhaled. With one tip of the ball, Khryapa changed the narrative of his own career, and this club’s history. This wasn’t the moment CSKA won the title, but it was the moment they didn’t lose it.

Fenerbahçe coach Zeljko Obradovic complained bitterly post-game about a supposed travel by De Colo on the final play of regulation, and I’m sure he was convinced. It was hubris though, considering how many fouls Luigi Lamonica in particular whistled in the second half. The officiating was maddening in its inconsistency, as the slightest contact was penalised at times, but the Fenerbahçe press was allowed to step over the normal bounds of physicality. Jan Vesely shot 1-for-10 from the line and lost the plot in the process, which eliminated one of Fener’s big advantages against a thinner CSKA frontline.

Khryapa and Teodosic Redeemed

This was a game for redemption, and for putting superstition in the bin where it belongs. Itoudis reflected on this in the press conference, probably talking about Teodosic and Khryapa without naming them directly. That those two men came through in crucial moments made it even more poetic. The enigmatic Serbian is the most ingenious creative whirlwind in European basketball, peerless as an artiste. You’d have to be dead inside – or a Fenerbahçe fan – not to feel a warm glow as he celebrated winning a Final Four in his seventh attempt.

His bounce pass to De Colo on a backdoor cut late in the fourth was one of the crucial moments when CSKA just about managed to hold the line – Khryapa’s three pointer was another. Even though Bobby Dixon broke through the barricades eventually, if Fener had taken the lead even a couple of plays earlier the mental toll of having to fight back may have been too much.

Two gorgeous assists in the first half summed up how impossible it is to contain him when he is in this mood. Twice, a defender managed to get him in the air, unable to shoot, but both times he dropped off an exquisite assist. How did he see the Frenchman streaking across the baseline in that split second? Nobody else will know. Defensively, he managed to skirt round the issue of playing with four fouls – as did De Colo. It was a masterful performance.

De Colo took the Final Four MVP award to go with his overall season trophy. He has done everything asked and expected of him this season – racking up 7 assists to go with his 22 points in the final. He was the CSKA offense in overtime, beating Udoh by a split second to the rim for a layup, drawing fouls and carrying the responsibility for winning a game they’d already won, then lost, then didn’t lose.

Itoudis’ Steely Calm

This game was a masterclass for coaching prowess, combining on-court strategy with the psychology needed to win the biggest games. He bravely kept with the switching scheme that gave up 22 offensive rebounds to Lokomotiv Kuban in the semi final, and once again Andrey Vorontsevich did a phenomenal job keeping Dixon and Sloukas in front of him. Only when Vorontsevich fouled out did Ekpe Udoh establish himself as a force and Bobby Dixon raised his head – another reason Fener cannot complain too heavily about the refs.

Itoudis has somehow managed to turn this financial behemoth into an underdog – at least in their own minds. A little siege mentality never hurt anyone, and while Vesely in particular shrunk from the moment, Itoudis got exactly what he needed from his role players. Pavel Korobkov only played eight minutes but he didn’t need to do much, just not be a net minus in his time spelling Hines, and he did just that. Putting little Dimitri Kulagin on to hack Vesely after he air-balled a free throw was the perfect kind of dick-move that only some coaches would have the balls to do in this game. It worked.

Dixon and Datome eventually found enough space to break down the defense late, but for most of the game CSKA gave a demonstration in perfect rotations and positioning. They switched on to the ball, overloaded the strong side to deny the easy pass into the post mismatch, but then autonomically recovered across the floor when needed. On the backline they stunted towards the corner and recovered back with perfect timing. It forced Obradovic’s side into a lot of hasty shots deep into the clock, and was a huge reason they led by 20 in the first place.

Sir Hines Returns

Kyle Hines was finally back to his Olympiacos-mode best. His first season in Moscow was a mess, playing a bit-part role at power forward on a team in disarray. Now in his third campaign, he finally reverted to the force of nature that the Piraeus fans still adore.  He was honest after the game, when ELA asked him whether he can put all the demons, all the history out of his mind in the moment. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t necessarily think about ‘here it goes again’ because I’ve been on the other side of this, of a 19-point comeback.”

At last, CSKA flipped round all of the ‘demons’, the history of failure, the superstition. How fitting that the player who twisted the knife in 2012 was able to heal it all four years later.

Listen to the ELA Podcast for adrenaline-fuelled reaction direct from the scene by me and Sam Meyerkopf, as well as interviews with Kyle Hines, Bobby Dixon and Aaron Jackson. It’s worth sticking around ’til the end.